When you think of teams that put themselves in a position to make a deep playoff run, they tend to rely more on their depth forwards to provide energy and find the scoresheet. More specifically, the third line.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have always had key pieces on their third unit, but it was never complete as there was always something missing. In addition, it was always one player carrying the weight on the line or not meeting expectations.
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This season, the Maple Leafs appear to have found two key players as David Kampf and Ondrej Kase have looked really sharp together. Now that Ilya Mikheyev is back in the lineup and making an immediate impact, this line does have the potential to be a complete and balanced third unit that can do some damage, offensively and defensively. This could also be the best third line we have seen in some time.
Strong Early Impression
If there’s one bright spot this season it’s been the impact that the third line has had every single game. Kampf has proven to be an extremely valuable offseason signing and the chemistry that he’s had with Kase in his bounce back season with the Maple Leafs is paying dividends to the team’s success. Both of which have seemed to surpass expectations.
Those two have rarely been split as they’ve always been together most of the time, unless due to an injury or a lineup change. Pierre Engvall has been the most consistent left wing with them as they spent 44.1% of the time together with Nick Ritchie being the next common at 10.9%. While both Engvall and Ritchie had their moments at certain points, it seemed like Kampf and Kase were doing most of the heavy lifting as they were always involved in the play at both ends of the ice.
When Mikheyev returned against the Edmonton Oilers from a broken thumb he sustained in October, it gave head coach Sheldon Keefe a perfect option to complete the third line when the forwards were fully healthy. He was spotted taking line rushes before their game against the Ottawa Senators and it was a move that needed to be done. Sure enough, it paid off.
It was only one game and we shouldn’t look too much into a very small sample size, but it’s hard to not take note of that line and the chemistry they started to form with each other. All three forwards recorded a point in their 6-0 win over the Senators, albeit in different situations and with different line mates. Mikheyev made the most of his return scoring a short-handed goal and a power play goal, while Kampf and Kase each finished the night with an assist.
However, their impact at five-on-five was felt when they were together. The trio spent 8:33 together and finished with a Corsi For percentage of 56.25 and a 62.50 scoring chances for percentage against the Senators. That’s good underlying numbers for the third line as their presence was felt, having a positive effect on the outcome of that game.
While we don’t know what the future looks like, one thing is for certain; this line should not be split up as Mikheyev could be another key to this unit’s success. It’s very early in the experimental process, but it does garner more looks to see if they can continue this trend.
Perfect Balance with Mikheyev in the Fold
If there’s one thing Mikheyev does to this line, is that he gives them a great balance and additional firepower where this line can do some serious damage when they’re on the ice. We’ve already seen what Kase and Kampf have done this season and Mikheyev has shown glimpses of promise previously.
He has been injured in the past, including a wrist laceration in his rookie season and he didn’t play his first game until mid-December. There were even rumours about him wanting a trade as a result of his role and ice time as factors. Mikheyev does bring significant value to this team, even though he’s struggled to produce with grade A scoring opportunities or stay healthy in the past. General manager Kyle Dubas made it known that he wanted to keep Mikheyev and that he’ll be a big factor for them going forward.
While it’s only two games, we’re already seeing why the Maple Leafs wanted to hang onto Mikheyev. He gives them another special teams option as he’s an extremely effective penalty killer and is now on the power play. In two games, he has averaged 1:14 SH TOI and 2:31 on the PP, the most in his three seasons with the Maple Leafs as he’s never averaged more than 10 seconds per game.
When they play at even strength, he would complete the trifecta of what makes an impactful third line. Mikheyev would provide the speed and agility to win puck battles, Kampf is the prototypical shut down centre with smarts and Kase has the strength to go in and setup and establish a forecheck while having slightly more offensive capabilities. Keefe mentions that Mikheyev is a big addition to their depth and an important part of the team.
“He is a guy who shift-to-shift is very good and effective for us,” Keefe said. “We can play him against anybody and play him with anybody. It helps us on the penalty kill. He is reliable late in games. With all of those kinds of things, he makes us a better team.”
Don’t Take This Line Lightly
This balanced line is going to be critical for the Maple Leafs going forward. I have mentioned on the Sticks in the 6ix podcast and fellow writer Alex Hobson echoed the same sentiments on the latest episode of the Maple Leafs Lounge.
This is one line that can definitely be a handful for the opposition. They’ve done a good job at shutting down top lines and the added two-way play and speed that Mikheyev brings makes that much more of an x-factor this season. Their transition game is strong and this will catch a lot of teams off guard.
No matter what situation they’re in, Kampf, Kase and Mikheyev are all going to play to their strengths and be extremely difficult to play against.
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Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.